Iowa baseball: A pitching road map for a deep Big Ten Tournament run

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. —  The message from Iowa baseball players and their coach was unified Monday, as they revved up for their now-annual run at this week’s Big Ten Conference tournament.

We believe we’ve already done enough, they said, to be one of 64 teams invited to the NCAA tournament. But we know to get our third NCAA regional bid in four years, we’d better win the whole deal this week at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.

“In my mind, I definitely think we deserve it,” Hawkeye leadoff man Chris Whelan said. “We have quality series wins over Michigan and Oklahoma State. And we have been playing well all year. But winning the (Big Ten) tournament is obviously the golden ticket.”

Iowa pitcher Zach Daniels is swarmed by teammates after closing out the game during a baseball game at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City between Iowa and Penn State on Saturday, May 19, 2018.

Indeed, the only way to remove at-large bid speculation is for 33-18 Iowa — which despite the weekend’s three-game series sweep of Penn State saw its RPI slip from 64 to 66 — to repeat as tourney champs in this double-elimination free-for-all, and earn that automatic bid.

And when studying sixth-seeded Iowa’s chances of emerging in a highly competitive eight-team tournament, you must start with the pitching.

Because if a team is to emerge from a grueling tourney that requires a minimum of four wins to collect that aforementioned “golden ticket,” it needs enough arms to survive … and advance.

Game 1 starter Nick Allgeyer is the ‘bulldog’ at the top.

The Hawkeye left-hander will make his first career Big Ten Tournament start in Wednesday’s 9 a.m. opener vs. third-seeded Michigan (32-19).

Allgeyer (5-4, 2.50 ERA) missed last season following Tommy John surgery. He’s expected to face Michigan lefty Tommy Henry (7-3, 3.14), a pitching rematch of an April 27 game that Iowa won, 4-2, to snap the Wolverines’ 20-game winning streak.

“He’s a bulldog. He is absolute preparation to the max every time,” Whelan said. “I know he’s going to go out there and put his best effort out there. It’s up to us to play good defense and put up some runs.”

How Allgeyer pitches in the opener is perhaps the key to Iowa making a deep run. If he can dominate in a Hawkeye win, he would not only preserve Rick Heller’s bullpen — but, with the early start, would have 3½ days’ rest to recover for a possible Sunday championship appearance.

“My arm’s been bouncing back pretty good the last seven weeks,” Allgeyer said. “It may be in the cards, but we’ll see how it plays out.”

Iowa pitcher Cole McDonald walks off the mound during a baseball game at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City between Iowa and Penn State on Friday, May 18, 2018.

Suddenly, the Hawkeyes have red-hot starters at Nos. 2, 3.

Iowa has uncovered some late-season firepower behind Allgeyer.

Cole McDonald (3-1, 3.33) is the planned Game 2 starter (5 p.m. Thursday if the Hawkeyes beat Michigan; 9 a.m. Thursday if they lose), and he looked as good as ever in returning from a three-week absence Friday night.

McDonald’s fastball cracked 94 mph, a personal record, in a dominant 65-pitch outing after his return from ulnar-nerve inflammation. The junior’s leash will be extended to about 85 pitches Thursday, and he has shown the ability to dominate — having thrown a no-hitter for Team USA in the World University Games over the summer.

In Iowa's No. 3 spot is true freshman Jack Dreyer, thrust into the rotation after McDonald’s injury. In those three starts, the lefty from Johnston been fantastic: a 1.69 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 16 innings with only eight hits allowed.

If a team wins its first three games at the Big Ten tourney (as Iowa did in 2016 in Omaha), it gets an automatic spot in Sunday’s winner-take-all championship game. That would not only be a best-case scenario for Iowa, it would greatly increase its at-large NCAA chances — to sit 36-18 with an eight-game winning streak.

“Having Cole back and Jack pitching the way he’s pitched,” Heller said, “it’s really made our staff a lot stronger and a lot deeper. And it enabled us to use our freshmen (relievers) in shorter stints.”

Iowa pitcher Jack Dreyer delivers a ball during a baseball game at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City between Iowa and Penn State on Saturday, May 19, 2018.

About that bullpen: A flame-throwing wild card has emerged.

The Hawkeyes’ bullpen doesn’t have the obvious multi-inning shutdown guy as it did in previous NCAA regional runs in 2015 and 2017. And the relief has been spotty at times, making the starters that much more important.

Still, Heller heads to Omaha with trusted options.

“I think the bullpen’s in better shape than it (was) in the beginning of the year,” said closer Zach Daniels, who said he’s embracing the thought of being this year’s Nick Hibbing or Josh Martsching. “A lot freshmen have stepped up.”

Nick Nelsen is the submarine-style right-hander to get Iowa out of a jam. Grant Judkins can be a long reliever to chew up innings. And then there’s Brady Schanuel.

The presumed ace of this year’s staff struggled for weeks and lost his rotation spot upon McDonald’s return. Now in the bullpen, his 96 mph fastball seems to have more control.

Though it was only eight pitches, a dominant relief inning Saturday against Penn State gave Heller comfort that he has an interesting bullpen wild card — one that’s also seasoned for a starter's-length outing.

“I really liked what I saw on Saturday. He came in and just blew it out. He was free and easy,” Heller said. “And it was the most relaxed I’ve seen Brady in a long, long time.”

A tournament dilemma: How quickly do you burn the bullpen?

Heller laughed when this question came up. Over 30-plus years, he’s consistently gone back to the same decision in tournament situations, even though — as he put it — it’s like punching yourself in the gut.

The approach if a key pitcher is struggling? 

Heller will pull him.

The full answer is telling of the Hawkeyes’ mentality for the week.

“You’ve got to win that game. And if you burn guys, you burn them,” Heller said. “You’ve got to get to that next day. And every win is important for us, not just to win the tournament but to try to increase our chances of getting an at-large bid. You can’t really hold guys back.

“That’s the first thought that comes into your head. ‘If I use him, then what about tomorrow?’ And there is no tomorrow in our case. We’re just going to try to win every game."

As Heller finished his answer, he laughed one more time.

"If we use them all the first day," he said, "we’ll figure it out.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.